Joyeux Noël (2005)

This was an enjoyable, though not amazing, entry into the genre of ‘Christmas war movie’. Joyeux Noël is a French movie based loosely on the Christmas Truce of 1914. if you were asleep in history class and a dozen other pop-culture references, the Christmas Truce refers to a series of informal cease-fires along the front lines of World War I.

We think this movie did a really good job of conveying aspects of that event, mostly around the way it probably felt. The surreality of the situation was compelling, and the tension was well done around what a person is told to feel toward people of another country, versus how they react when face-to-face. Also I liked the fact that different minor characters reacted completely differently.

The movie followed a half-dozen or so characters from three units. I did really like how multilingual the movie was. No characters speak an unnatural language for the courtesy of the audience.

So we have two brothers and a preacher from Scotland, a lieutenant leading the French force and his assistant, and a German singer who has joined the army, plus his girlfriend as major characters up front. One of the brothers dies promptly, causing the other to have a quiet breakdown over the rest of the film, and the preacher is our voice of super-obvious morality. The French lieutenant is trying to do his job although he’s not cut out for it and he’s miserable with worry for his wife and possible child, cut off from communication. The singer’s girlfriend (also a famous singer) tries to get him away from the front and ends up there herself in time for the impromptu Christmas celebrations.

She is complicated. The actress does a good job, but it’s silly that she’s there and the things she gets away with are completely ridiculous. I don’t like that the (male) singer is the one who really takes the step to open the Christmas truce, either. It feels forced and unnecessary.

There’s one more character I want to mention who seems like a minor character and a jerk at first, the leader of the German force. It felt like the filmmakers were trying so hard to make all the characters on all sides equally likable and relatable, and in this case, they may have stepped a little too far. Maybe. I personally think they could have cut one bit of dramatic irony and still had him be an interesting character who’s trying to be true to his duty and his love of country and his belief in the common humanity of the people they are facing in battle.

Despite a lot of rather obvious, over-dramatized and corny beats in the lead up, once the events of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day get going, I think the movie gets really solid. The little details of the interactions between the sides and the sheer banality of it all are really great. Some of it is based on things that really happened (trading liquor, singing, games, burials), and some of it is frankly too far and ridiculous (letting the opposite side shelter in your trench when your side is shelling their lines). The sentiment comes through, though.

The ending is fairly heavy-handed for most of the characters, but still surprisingly effective. Final verdict: Not a pitch-perfect effort, but enjoyable and interesting.